The cover photo for the new album "Middle Western" – featuring a dusty cowboy pulled off a dime novel paperback riding on, what else, a deer – tells you most of what you need to know about Horseshoes & Hand Grenades.
The Wisconsin-based band, born at UW-Stevens Point, is a mash-up of Western and Midwestern sensibilities, old-time string music with a new dash of high-energy playfulness and tinkering with tradition.
The band will bring that vibe – and songs off the new record – to the Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday, May 1. Before then, however, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with guitarist and vocalist Adam Greuel about the new tunes.
OnMilwaukee.com: What were the early inspirations for your sound at the beginning?
Adam Greuel: It was really eclectic for us as a band. Collin (Mettelka, fiddle player) had become interested in old-time music later in high school, and when he met Russell (Pedersen, banjo), he kind of coaxed Russell into playing some old-timey music on his banjo. That was really traditional old-style music with the combination of fiddle and banjo.
Then our harmonica player Dave (Lynch) was really influenced by blues and some Cajun music. It started off with those three and then Sam (Odin, bass) and myself came into the band and brought an interest in The Grateful Dead and some older jam music. Sam, in particular, was really interested in jazz. To this day, he sounds less like a bluegrass bass player and more doing runs that you’d hear from somebody like Miles Davis and other jazz greats.
So our music kind of came from a lot of different angles, and we were all interested in what each other was up to – being friends – and all really willing to let the music go where it wanted to go with all the different things brought to the table. We were really comfortable with creating something that was a little different that maybe a lot of folks weren't doing.
OMC: How do you find that balance of playing old-time influenced music while also making it sound fresh and new?
AG: Personally, for me it’s just about being open, allowing for grooves to step outside of the traditional confines of what somebody would call bluegrass or old-time music. Our generation as a whole – with the availability of music and the Internet – is so exposed to so much different music. It’s not just what your neighbors are playing on the porch; we’re all able to go out to libraries and the Internet and explore completely different styles, whether that be African banjo music or Louisiana Cajun music.
So I think that we’re able to hear so many different styles of music and grooves, it kind of passively broadens your musical vocabulary and that just makes you more willing to step outside of the box. Why not put a little bit of Cajun music into a bluegrass song? Why not try it? It could be interesting, fun and something we had never knew existed that we like a lot.
OMC: How was the process behind making your new album, "Middle Western"?
AG: The "Middle Western" recording process has been really interesting. After we created our last album, it wasn’t too long later that we started the process of "Middle Western." It’s actually been a year and a half long process.
AG: Yeah, and over a year and a half time period, so many things change – everything from the climate around the place we were recording up in Northern Wisconsin to even the way you look at the world. Your perspective can change in a year and a half, and you can change as people. So it was really cool recording this because such a wide range of us as musicians and us as people was kind of captured in the year and a half. Even the growth of the band is kind of shown in the record. Some of the stuff was recorded a year and a half ago; other stuff was recorded just a couple months back.
OMC: Is there a certain song where you can really hear the evolution?
AG: Personally, I can say that, as a songwriter, the opening track – "Short But Sweet" – of the album was recorded early on in the process. Then a whole different style that I’ve turned toward is in "Breathing." Those are like two almost completely different style tunes. It’s just reflective of what I was thinking about or going through or even just listening to. I was listening to a lot of Gordon Lightfoot somewhat recently, and who knows how that kind of thing passively works its way into your songwriting.
OMC: What for you was the biggest change you noticed in the band over the process?
AG: As you become slightly better musicians just from playing and being on the road, your ability also opens up. Things that you maybe couldn’t do before or weren’t interested in trying, you’re a little more confident about doing. I think in particular Collin has a really unique style of writing, and some of the grooves, I think, would’ve been difficult for us to try and hit a couple of years ago maybe. More recently, I think we’ve had the confidence in each other and ourselves as musicians to step outside of our more traditional sounds and try a couple of new things and be OK with the direction they go.
OMC: Coming right off of your previous album to this, was there something you wanted to improve upon from that last record?
AG: In a way, you become more conscious of the studio process. Personally, my ear became more deliberate in the studio, into the very intricate details of the recording tone of instruments and the arrangement and the mixing process. Myself and Russell were extremely involved in the mixing process with this record. We kind of saw the process through to the very end, and I was really, really happy with that, because when you listen to it at the end, you can know that you’re really comfortable with the way the final mixes sit. With past records, we were a little bit more hands off in that department and, frankly, not as aware of how you can make a record sparkle or pop.
OMC: Sonically, what do you think is the most interesting thing about this album?
AG: It’s funny you say it in that way too, because that’s something we would discuss in the studio, really making it have the sonic punch you want every song to have. We looked at each song and tried to be very deliberate with it to make it sonically pleasing.
We also were aware that the songs were super eclectic and that each one would need a different thing in order to make it really sound the way we hoped for them to come out. So I guess the key was to look at each song individually and – we have five songwriters in the band so it’s really unique to each song – figure out what each songwriter had in his head for how something should come out.
There’s a song – the second to last track, "Get Down To It" – that Collin had always heard in his head that the perfect version would have this kind of grungy, distorted vocal effect on it. So we put it on there, and we were all really stoked with how it sounded. It was definitely different from what we had done before, but we were really happy with that difference too. So it was really song-to-song and really playing around with a tune until we felt like it popped.
OMC: What does the album title "Middle Western" mean to you, other than a fun kind of play on Midwest and Western?
AG: There’s a couple of things. One of the reasons why the album took a year and a half to record was that we were traveling and touring constantly across the Middle West. We were seeing new places, meeting new people and experiencing new things, but we’d go to the studio when we could, when we had a weekend off. So a part of the name "Middle Western" comes from the fact that we’re traveling around and how a lot of that is reflected in the songwriting.
The second part of that is we were sitting in the studio after a particularly long day, and we were just listening back to all of the tracks, just kind of being goofy. It was one of those days when it’s super long and you get to end and you feel loose and just goofy. Collin started doing this horse clap to several of the songs, and we were laughing like the songs were coming out of some spaghetti western. There, we decided: "Middle Western." Of course.
Shortly there after, we joked about a cowboy riding on a white-tailed deer. And that ended up being the cover photo. (laughs) That kind of reflects how we’ve gone about our time as a band: just being goofy and friends and letting things develop how they’re gonna go and being comfortable with it along the way.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.